When Pope Francis touches down in Asia this November, for his fourth visit to the region in as many years, it will do much to underline his regard for the peripheries of the traditional Catholic world. Yet, however closely he embraces the region, his hopes of forging a stronger relationship with China appear likely to remain – at least for now – an unanswered prayer.
The visit, still not officially announced for the Myanmar leg, but which should take place from November 23 to December 8, will make Francis the first pontiff in history to visit Myanmar and only the second to visit Bangladesh, after Pope John Paul II’s 1986 trip to Dhaka.
“This confirms the openness with which the Holy Father looks to Asia,” said Father Sergio Ticozzi, of Hong Kong’s Holy Spirit Seminary, “not only to China, but also to Vietnam, Bangladesh and Myanmar: it is very significant, since it shows how much the Holy See is aware that the future of the world lies in Asia.”
The visit comes after an invitation extended to the pontiff by Myanmar’s president, Htin Kyaw, in May, when the two countries formally established diplomatic relations during State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Italy and the Vatican. While the Pope’s schedule has been cleared for the above dates, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar still has not officially announced the visit, due to concerns of possible unrest from “ultra-nationalists elements”, according to one source.
At the time, the Pope expressed his concern for the situation in Rakhine State in northern Myanmar, where the Rohingya, a majority Muslim community in a predominantly Buddhist country, have faced violence and what the UN and rights groups say may amount to crimes against humanity by the army.
According to reports, the State Counsellor did not change her stance on the issue – she denies claims of ethnic cleansing on behalf of the security forces – even in front of the Holy Father, who, nevertheless, offered his assistance for “non-violent peace building”.
Father Augustine Zaw Aung, a Catholic priest in Kachin, said the visit was “to strengthen the ties just established between the Vatican and Myanmar” at a time when Myanmar was still seeking “support for its efforts to democratise amid many political, ethnic and religious conflicts within the country”.
There are about 700,000 Catholics in Myanmar – roughly 1 per cent of the total population – mostly in the northern states, which are predominantly populated by minority ethnic groups.
Father Ticozzi said the visit would give them “increased visibility” and that such groups needed the support of the church.
“The visit will be an invitation to the Bamar [the dominant ethnic group in the country] to solve the ongoing problems with the national ethnic minorities,” he said.
The Rohingya, who number more than one million, have been denied citizenship by Myanmar, which considers them “illegal immigrants” from bordering Bangladesh, despite their having lived in the country for generations.
Meanwhile, in Dhaka, the first Bangladeshi Cardinal, Patrick D’Rozario, expressed joy at the forthcoming visit, telling the Catholic newspaper Crux Now that “Bangladesh is a church of the poor, for the poor, poor in spirit, but there is a richness in our poverty.”
About 0.5 per cent of Bangladesh’s population is Christian – the country is about 90 per cent Muslim. For Dhaka, a visit by the Pope after the terrorist attack at the Holey Artisan Bakery which left 29 people dead in July last year is also a way to emphasise the country is not in the throes of terrorism or religious fundamentalism. “Bangladesh is a land of peace,” D’Rozario told the Italian daily La Stampa.
Since ascending to the papacy in 2013, Pope Francis has visited Asia three times: South Korea in 2014, and Sri Lanka and the Philippines in 2015. He has also sanctified Joseph Vaz, an Oratorian priest and missionary who died in 1711 and is now the first Sri Lankan saint. Last year, Pope Francis received Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang at the Vatican. And this year he approved the beatification of Takayama Ukon, the first samurai to be given the honour.
In all this renewed courting of Asia, the Vatican – and the Argentine-born pope in particular – has made no mystery of its greatest ambition: the hope of opening formal diplomatic relations with China. Exactly one year ago, press reports and Vatican statements seemed to indicate that a big announcement on the diplomatic relations between the two was imminent. Beijing and the Vatican have been estranged since 1951, when China expelled all missionaries and Vatican representatives from the country, and the Vatican’s official diplomatic mission – called a nunciature – was moved to Taipei.
Despite many attempts at a rapprochement, some key contentions remain unresolved. Beijing’s interest in opening its doors to full diplomatic Vatican representation in its territory appears moderate, at best. One of the main issues is the ordainment of bishops, a prerogative of the Vatican that China does not recognise. Instead, Chinese bishops are ordained by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a parallel church seen as illegitimate by the Holy See. This means that China, where Catholicism is one of five officially recognised religions (alongside Protestantism, Buddhism, Islam and Daoism), has both the Patriotic Church, and what is known as the Underground Church, which is faithful to the Pope but not deemed legal by the national authorities.
When China allowed the papal plane to transit through Chinese air space for his visit to South Korea in 2014, Pope Francis hailed the decision as a major step forward.
Yet that remains the closest he has ever got to the country itself.
Even as countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, and even Communist Vietnam recognise a clear diplomatic benefit to ties with the Catholic state, Beijing seems to have grown only more cautious in its approach to organised religion – and appears in no rush to grant greater influence within its borders to a man it considers simply as a foreign head of state.
And with observers ruling out any progress on the diplomatic front before the 19th Communist Party Congress this autumn, the Vatican’s hopes for rapprochement seem as distant as ever. ■